“A picture is worth a thousand words” is ancient wisdom. According to modern educational theory, the human brain learns in various ways, and through several different modes of communication: verbal (written or spoken), visual, and kinaesthetic (movement). Most of us have a preference for one particular ‘learning style’, and the best teachers make use of all three to get their message across effectively. God, unsurprisingly, was aware of this long before we were! He communicated His truth to the Israelites principally through the Law (verbally), but also through the design and layout of the Tabernacle, through the ceremonies performed there (visually), and through their experiences of the Exodus (kinaesthetically). We have the gospel proclaimed to us verbally, as we read our Bibles and listen to sermons, but in the sacraments its message is confirmed and reinforced, visually and by ritual enactment. In a similar way, a wedding ceremony involves more than just the speaking of words; the forming of the new relationship is acted out by physical movement, and the giving of a material object – a ring – from one party to the other.
In the sacraments, then, God speaks to us, for our encouragement and for our greater understanding. “All the sacraments were instituted for the purpose of nourishing faith.” (Luther: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) Baptism demonstrates the once-for-all aspect, communion the ongoing aspect of our salvation. Through taking part in these simple acts of washing and eating, our faith can be strengthened. Sometimes, actions really do speak louder and more clearly than words. When Martin Luther was under spiritual attack and tempted to doubt his own salvation, his lifeline – the one thing he was able to cling on to – was not a verse of scripture but the objective fact of his baptism. (He would write on his desk, in chalk, “I am baptised!”)
But also, by taking part in the sacraments, we ourselves are speaking – to God and to one another. “The story of Jesus is not simply one that is told; it must be enacted… Through baptism we do not simply learn the story, but we become part of that story… These rites, baptism and eucharist, are not just ‘religious things’ that Christian people do… Through them we enact what we are.” (S Hauerwas: Living Out Loud) They are personal statements of commitment to Christ as Lord (as we obey His command to be baptised) and to our acknowledgement of His death as the basis of our forgiveness (as we take Communion). They are also personal statements of commitment to the Church and unity with our Christian brothers and sisters. By their very nature, the sacraments are corporate actions (you can’t baptise yourself!). It is therefore very sad that the sacraments given by God to unite us (“one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” Ephesians 4:5) have become some of the bitterest sources of contention and division between churches.
The sacraments also proclaim the gospel to onlookers. In Acts, the preaching of the Gospel is accompanied by the call to baptism (Acts 2:38; 10:47,48; 22:12-16), as a vivid demonstration of conversion and regeneration (Romans 6:3,4). In communion, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (I Corinthians 11:26) and declare our ongoing dependence upon Him.
And the sacraments have yet another purpose, for humans are a forgetful species. If we are not constantly reminded of what God has done for us, we easily become indifferent to Him and forget ‘the love we had at first’ (Revelation 2:4,5). It took only a generation for the Israelites to forget God after they had entered the Promised Land (Judges 2:10-13), and the Church has shown a similar tendency to drift away from her devotion to Jesus. But the sacraments provide us with regular reminders of what we owe to our Lord. We neglect them at our peril.
One thing, though, must be stated clearly: the sacraments are not essential for salvation. We are saved by faith, through the preaching of the word (I Peter 1:23-25; Romans 10:13,14); and our salvation is confirmed by our confession of Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9), not by participating in sacraments (although such participation is itself an act of Christian confession). The thief on the cross next to Jesus (Luke 23:42,43) entered Paradise without the help of any sacraments at all! Cornelius and his friends were received by God into His Kingdom and sealed with the Holy Spirit without water baptism (Acts 10:44-47). Yet Peter did seem to think it necessary for them to be baptised in water as well (Acts 10:47,48).
So why are the sacraments compulsory? Perhaps because by being administered to all, without exception, they testify that the way of salvation is the same for all, without exception. All the Israelites (without exception) passed through the Red Sea and ate the manna in the wilderness. Similarly, under the New Covenant there is no entry into the Kingdom of God without cleansing (John 13:8), and no eternal life that is not derived from the life of Jesus (John 6:53). Anyone who chooses to opt out of the sacraments is not only disobeying Christ’s clear commands but also, in effect, declaring that they do not need Him.